Reagan at 100 casts shadow over Republican Party

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 12:49 AM

On the 100th anniversary of his birth, Ronald Reagan is remembered as a transformative president, the creator of the contemporary Republican Party and the very definition of conservatism. He might also be as misunderstood by some of his followers as he is underappreciated by his detractors.

Reagan, who died in 2004, is the object of both mythmaking and revisionism. As his presidency has undergone examination and reevaluation by conservative and liberal scholars, his place in history has grown larger.

His iconic stature among conservatives is a source of inspiration for a Republican Party that, despite its victories in November, still hungers to recapture the high points of his presidency. Yet to many Republicans, Reagan nostalgia is an obstacle to the party's hopes of moving forward in a different time with challenges different from those of the 1980s.

Reagan's leadership style blended conviction, flexibility, toughness and optimism. Those who try to pinpoint a single attribute to explain Reagan's success often overlook other facets of his political persona that were equally significant. And although he helped fuel the conservative ascendancy, he was not, in the estimation of scholars, a conventional conservative, certainly not by today's standards.

Steven F. Hayward, a conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of two volumes under the title "The Age of Reagan," said that accepting the 40th president's unique qualities is key to understanding his impact and influence. "His particular brand of conservatism, was idiosyncratic," Hayward said, adding: "He was unconventional even from a conservative point of view."

Sean Wilentz, a liberal historian at Princeton University and the author of "The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008," said Reagan's New Deal roots, California perspective and conservative convictions combined to form a package that cannot be easily replicated. "He was a Reaganite," Wilentz said. "Maybe the only Reaganite."

Lou Cannon, the journalist and Reagan biographer whose book "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime" was on President Obama's holiday reading list, questioned whether Reagan would be comfortable with the elements of today's Republican Party who demand near-purity as the measure of a true conservative.

"As Reagan has become more broadly acceptable to the American people, and as the scholars give him higher rankings, the Republicans want to hold on to this pure ideological vision of a Reagan that really never existed, or if it did exist, didn't sustain one week in Sacramento or Washington," he said.

In the reinterpretations of Reagan, some liberals have sought to characterize him, as Hayward wrote recently in National Review, as a "crypto-liberal." Reagan sought to reverse the flow of power to Washington that began with the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, for whom he voted four times, but he did not attempt to dismantle key elements of the New Deal and lived with big deficits throughout his presidency.

Reagan's conservative convictions were never in question. But he could differentiate between principles and individual policy battles. He made tax cuts a central component of Republican economics but accepted tax increases as governor and as president. He signed a liberal abortion bill as governor of California, though he was a strong opponent of abortion as president. He called the Soviet Union the "evil empire" but later toned down his rhetoric as he moved to negotiate with the Soviets to limit nuclear arms.

Wilentz found the Reagan record anything but one-dimensional. "I'm not saying he was a liberal," Wilentz said. "He wasn't. He wasn't even a moderate. He moved the country in a conservative way, and the country has not been the same since. . . . He cleared the way for liberalism to be on the defensive."

Makings of a president

The arc of Reagan's early career is well known: radio announcer, Grade B actor, Screen Actors Guild president, pitchman for General Electric, and then, in 1964, a debut on the national political stage with a televised speech for Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater titled "A Time for Choosing."

He was elected governor of California in 1966, defeating two-term Democratic Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Sr. He was reelected in 1970. In 1976, he challenged President Gerald R. Ford for the Republican nomination, carrying the fight all the way to the GOP convention in Kansas City, Mo., and losing narrowly.

"If he doesn't run in '76, he doesn't run in '80. And if he doesn't run in '80, the Republican Party and the world would be vastly different," said Craig Shirley, who has written books about both the '76 and '80 Reagan campaigns.

By 1980, he was the acknowledged leader of a conservative movement and captured the Republican nomination, though he was opposed by a considerable part of the GOP establishment.

At the Republican convention in Detroit, he spent days negotiating with Ford over what was described as a virtual co-presidency in the hope of luring his former rival onto the ticket. When those negotiations failed, he quickly tapped George H.W. Bush, a paragon of the GOP establishment who had finished second in the primaries, as his running mate. In a single stroke, he unified his party and, more significantly, helped trigger the demise of the party's once-strong moderate wing.

In that 1980 campaign, Reagan not only consolidated the conservative coalition but also redefined what it meant to be a conservative.

"Ronald Reagan did not invent all of the elements of modern conservatism," said William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar who served as a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration. "He didn't invent any of them. What he did was to integrate them - not just put them together like beads on a string, but integrate them into an overall narrative that had some coherence and some real resonance."

Reagan changed the Republican approach to economic and fiscal policy by combining his call for smaller government and less power for Washington with a pro-growth message that emphasized deep tax cuts - a program that Bush called "voodoo economics."

He embraced fierce nationalism in foreign policy - his opposition to the Panama Canal treaty provided the spark for his challenge to Ford - and reversed the policy of detente with the Soviets that was a product of the Nixon-Kissinger-Ford era. His outlook was grounded in anti-communism, which until the collapse of the Soviet Union was the strongest strand binding the conservative coalition together.

Of equal importance to building a conservative movement, he brought social and religious conservatives - symbolized by the rise of the Moral Majority under the Rev. Jerry Falwell - into the coalition in a way no previous Republican leader had done, even though he rarely attended church. In a memorable appearance in 1980, he told a gathering of religious broadcasters, "You can't endorse me, but I can endorse you."

The coalition not only united the Republican Party but also gave birth to a new class of GOP voters: Reagan Democrats.

Reagan easily unseated Jimmy Carter in 1980. The most memorable line from his first inaugural address underscored the core of his conservative philosophy: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

Yet there were many compromises that seemed to belie those principles. He pushed through a major reduction in income tax rates in 1981 but agreed to legislation the next year that partially offset those cuts with other tax increases. The deal included prospective spending cuts that never materialized.

He appointed a bipartisan commission to fix Social Security and accepted a package that included tax increases and cuts in benefits. In 1986, he signed a major overhaul of the federal tax code that further lowered individual rates but also broadened the tax base and eliminated loopholes. In his second term, he signed an immigration bill that included an amnesty provision, anathema to conservatives today.

"Reagan had a strong small-business, small-government, pro-business, pro-private-sector, pro-national-security philosophy with a lot of the old so-called family values," said Ken Duberstein, who was White House chief of staff in Reagan's second term. "But the reality of governing for Reagan was that he was the ultimate pragmatist."

Cannon uses the word "practical" rather than "pragmatic" to describe Reagan's governing style. "He's a conviction politician and knows where he wants to get," Cannon said. "But he knows you don't get there in a straight line."

Reagan was always prepared to buck the establishment, whether that was the opinion of elites, the foreign policy establishment or his own State Department, which opposed inclusion of the now-famous line "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" in Reagan's 1987 speech in Berlin.

He promoted a space-based missile defense, which was derided by critics as a "Star Wars" plan. He promoted increases in the defense budget that even some congressional Republicans felt were too big and too confrontational. He had a utopian vision of a world without nuclear weapons that many in the foreign policy establishment found hopelessly naive.

He was sunny and amiable, a president who delegated the hard work and who joked, "It's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?" His detractors thought him simple or simple-minded. Yet he was an astute politician and a tough negotiator. "I had no idea how shrewd he was politically," Wilentz said. "I think I was captive of not just the liberal idea but in the media, too, that he delegated a great deal, that he was more a symbol than a political leader in the larger sense."

Duberstein said "there's a romantic notion that everything was wonderful" during Reagan's two terms from 1981 to 1989, summed up in the 1984 campaign slogan "Morning in America." Instead, there were controversies (the Iran-contra scandal), crises (the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 service members) and disappointments (the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the breakdown of the summit with the Soviets in Reykjavik). His party lost two dozen House seats in the 1982 midterms, and the GOP lost the Senate in 1986.

His domestic policies were controversial, considered harsh and punitive by Democrats. He also drew criticism from conservatives, who saw Reagan as insufficiently committed to the principles he espoused, and from more moderate Republicans in Congress. "In his diaries, he complains more about Republicans than Democrats," Hayward said.

Too much reminiscence?

Almost two years ago, Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, warned Republicans not to wallow in nostalgia for the Reagan years.

"I don't think President Reagan, if he was a leader of our party today, would be nostalgic about the past," he said in a recent e-mail explaining his comments. "He would be speaking about the future."

The United States of 2011 is a far different country from the one that elected Reagan, and the core policies of Reaganism have lost some of their potency. Combating threats from Islamic radicalism is not the same as fighting communism. Tax rates have been cut dramatically, and Republicans now focus as much attention on preventing those rates from rising as advocating deeper reductions. On some social issues, particularly gay rights and same-sex marriage, public attitudes are shifting toward greater tolerance.

"It's a different era," said Patrick Buchanan, who was an adviser to Reagan. "You've got to have a different formula. The Republican Party is frozen in the past in many ways."

Yet nostalgia for Reagan continues. In the 2008 presidential campaign, candidates and voters alike talked about finding another Reagan - or embodying what Reagan had come to mean. The party probably will go through a repeat version of that once the 2012 nomination battle begins in earnest.

The AEI's Hayward said he sympathizes with conservatives who have adhered rigidly to the Reagan doctrine on issues of taxes and the size of government. "A lot of conservatives feel frustrated that, except for the Reagan years, they're continuing to lose the long-term battle with liberals over the size of government, over the direction of the culture. So they're digging in their heels more than they would have 20 or 30 years ago."

But Ken Khachigian, a Republican strategist who wrote speeches for Reagan, said conservatives "need to be clear-eyed about Reagan" and how he sought to implement the principles he espoused. What Republicans need, he said, is the "flexibility to work within those principles on issues they need to address in modern 21st-century America."

Republican pollster John McLaughlin recalled a survey he conducted shortly after Reagan's landslide reelection victory in 1984 that asked people why they voted for Reagan. Being a conservative was not the top answer. Instead, people focused on an improved economy and a sense of renewed American pride.

McLaughlin said he told a conservative friend that Reagan was reelected not because he was a conservative but because his conservative policies succeeded.

The tension between today's GOP establishment and the tea party movement underscores the challenge ahead for the party of Reagan. Some Republicans see the tea party activists as his natural descendants. Others see them as ignoring the appeal of Reagan to conservatives of many stripes.

"Commentators who hail Reagan as heroic today would have been apoplectic over his views on immigration, record on deficits and his personal relationship with Tip O'Neill," the Democrat who was then speaker of the House, Nick Ayers, the former executive director of the Republican Governors Association, said in an e-mail. "But these issues were as much a part of his transformational presidency as battling the Cold War, cutting taxes, ushering in an age of devolution or revising the economy."

Charlie Black, a GOP strategist who was part of Reagan's 1980 campaign team, offered advice to those who will seek the White House in 2012. "People have warm feelings about Reagan, but he's gone," he said. "If you're out running for the Republican nomination for president, you have to pay homage to Reagan, but you better be talking about yourself and your policies and what you're going to do."

That is, after all, the way Reagan did it.

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